What happened to the climate movement during the pandemic?

Although they were dealt a heavy blow by COVID-19, organizers say their movement hasn’t lost momentum
Photo: Laurent Gass
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The climate crisis has not diminished. The ongoing wildfires in B.C. would be “virtually impossible” without human influence, according to researchers from the World Weather Attribution Initiative.

Two years ago, climate change was a central public issue. The September 2019 climate strike marked the largest global climate protest in history.

But in 2020, the issue was overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The climate movement has scarcely been featured in mainstream media compared to the coverage from before the pandemic.

So what has happened to the climate movement?

Feet on the ground

It has not been an easy time for grassroots climate activists, says Albert Lalonde. Many groups have just been trying to hold on until the end of the pandemic.

Lalonde is part of CEVES (Coalition étudiante pour un virage environnemental et social), which, until formalizing under that banner in early 2020, was a loose coalition of student and environmental groups that organized protests around the theme “la planet s’invite” (the planet invites itself). — He also participated in a lawsuit against the Canadian government over its climate inaction, which was dismissed in October 2020.

CEVES had planned a week of student strikes for March 30 to April 3, 2020, which had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.

But Lalonde says that in addition to the impact of the pandemic, many climate activists have changed their agenda to include other social causes, including racial equality, defunding the police, Indigenous rights, migrant rights, and more. He, and many others, argue these changes make sense because they are part of the same struggle against injustices related to capitalism. He believes this pivot would have occurred eventually without the pandemic due to the social momentum of other events combined with an individual willingness to integrate causes.

Two recent climate protests in Montreal — one on Sept. 19, 2020, the other on March 19, 2021 — garnered only a few hundred participants. The September 2019 protest had gathered over half a million people in the city.

‘A cross-disciplinary work ethic’

Teika Newton is the membership and domestic policy manager at Climate Action Network Canada (CAN-Can), which connects hundreds of members and other non-member organizations that work on climate change. It also pushes for environmentally aggressive government policy, and represents Canadian climate groups in international circles.

COVID-19 meant that non-profits had to spend time installing entire new systems to work from home, says Newton. But the quality of work by climate groups has been “really impressive,” which she attributes at least in part to a “shift to a more cross-disciplinary work ethic in the Canadian nonprofit sector” during the pandemic.

In April 2020, four of the largest climate organizations — Sierra Club BC, LeadNow, 350.org, and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment — convened to discuss the effects of the pandemic on the climate movement, according to Newton. They drafted a set of six “guiding principles” called the Just Recovery For All. One of these principles called for the government to provide “relief directly to people,” before the government rolled out its Canadian Emergency Response Benefit program.

Newton also highlights the work of Climate Caucus, an association of local elected officials across Canada fighting climate change, which put together a “toolkit” for elected officials in 2020, around the theme of “One Ten Zero: One Planet, Ten Years, No One Left Behind.”

“It’s really impressive [what] they’ve been doing, while managing the responsibilities of decision making during this pandemic.”

CAN-Can has also been working on Bill C-12, which is meant to hold the federal government accountable on climate change. The lack of accountability, Newton says, is one of the major reasons for a lack of progress. “Canada has a historic pattern of failing to meet its climate engagements. One of the reasons is it does not have an incentive to do so.” Bill C-12 became law in June.

The organization has also been advocating for an aggressive new NDC, or Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement, for Canada. They recommend a 60 per cent domestic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions under 2005 levels by 2030, as well as an 80 per cent reduction internationally through funding and investments. As a developed country, Canada has an obligation to strive for this “ambitious target,” they argue.

Currently, CAN-Can is working on a policy with its members for a Just Transition, to protect workers in industries that will be affected as Canada transitions its economy. They’re also working on policy relating to housing, transport and electricity standards that meet environmental concerns.

The Rebels

Extinction Rebellion, also known as XR, is a global collective that pushes for climate progress by engaging in civil disobedience, usually by blocking roads, bridges, or railways.

XR Vancouver has been pushing for more direct actions in Canada, says Zain Haq, action and logistics director for the Vancouver chapter.

They stopped doing direct actions at the onset of the pandemic, but resumed them in fall 2020 with railway occupations. This past July, a dozen members were arrested during the occupation of the Burrard Street Bridge.

XR Vancouver has also been advocating for more nationally coordinated events, the last of which happened in October 2019, during XR’s global #BridgeOut event. They proposed one for May 2021, but it was rejected due to concerns there would not be enough participants. The Vancouver chapter went ahead with a three-day, two-bridge occupation dubbed the “spring rebellion,” in which 20 participants were arrested.

Last month, the group tried again, emphasizing that it was a matter of principle not dependent on the number of participants. Many groups responded positively, and they plan to have two monthly actions — one on August 21, and another on September 25 — leading up to an “at least” two week-long series of occupations starting on October 16.

Despite the small numbers of people engaging in some actions during the pandemic, Haq noted that an increasing number of members are willing to get arrested during actions as more communities are affected by wildfires.

“We used to only be able to rely on 30 participants per event. Now that number is more like 600,” says Haq, who expects thousands of people will participate in the coming October “rebellion.”

The Future

The next United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, is scheduled for this November. Expectations are high. With a federal election happening in September, and with the heat waves, wildfires, and smoke smothering many parts of the country this summer, climate change could be a big part of the campaign.

Lalonde says the next protest in Montreal is happening on September 24, in the midst of XR’s planned actions. It may not be long before climate change takes centre stage again.

When asked if she thought COVID-19 had taken momentum away from the fight against climate change, Newton said, “No, I don’t. I don’t think that momentum is gone at all.”

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